Crowds expected at Hartsfield-Jackson for Thanksgiving travel

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects to handle more than 2.9 million passengers over the Thanksgiving travel period, and officials advise travelers to get to the airport at least two hours before their flights.

Those taking international flights should allow three hours, according to Transportation Security Administration officials. The total of 2.9 million passengers are expected to pass through the airport from Friday Nov. 18 through Monday Nov. 28.

MORE: Traveling during the holidays? Navigate Atlanta's airport like a pro with our guide

"The busiest travel time of the year is upon us at Hartsfield-Jackson," said Hartsfield-Jackson interim general manager Roosevelt Council during a press conference Tuesday morning.

Some travelers may remember lengthy security lines that snaked through the terminal last year and over the spring. TSA and airport officials have since added staff and made improvements to reduce lines.

Now, TSA officials say most security wait times are 20 minutes or less, but some waits can still be close to 30 minutes long. Those in the TSA trusted traveler program known as PreCheck typically wait less than 5 minutes, the agency says.

Over the holidays, some security checkpoints will open earlier, at 3:30 a.m., while the main checkpoint remains open on a limited basis 24 hours a day. At the South security checkpoint, a third automated "smart lane" was just added to process passengers more quickly.

With added staff and the smart lanes, the result is "noticeably different," said Roosevelt Council, interim general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson. More smart lanes will be added to other checkpoints in coming months for a total of up to 22 by next summer.

While airport officials advise arriving at the airport two hours before flights, passengers should allow extra time to get through traffic on the way to the airport. This year, there's more congestion on airport roads than usual due to lane closures for construction outside the domestic terminal. Atlanta Police Department airport precinct commander Lane Hagin said travelers should allow an extra 10 to 15 minutes to get through airport roads.

Airport parking lots have also been filling up quickly, and finding a spot or using park-ride shuttles may take extra time.

The busiest travel day is expected to be the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when 79,000 travelers are expected to pass through security checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson. Tens of thousands more passengers will be connecting through the Atlanta airport on the concourses.

Saturday and Monday after Thanksgiving are also expected to be busy. TSA expects to process half a million passengers through Atlanta airport security checkpoints from the Tuesday before Thanksgiving until the Tuesday after, up 4 percent from last year.

TSA officials advise travelers to be aware of what's in their carry-on bags and to keep out prohibited items that can slow security lines. Prohibited items regularly collected by TSA include guns, heavy items that could be used as bludgeons and replicas of weapons like perfume bottles shaped like grenades or purses with handles shaped like brass knuckles.

A total of 217 guns have been detected by TSA at Hartsfield-Jackson this year to date, including those found in carry-on bags and undeclared firearms in checked bags, according to TSA's federal security director in Atlanta Mary Leftridge Byrd.

Even without any prohibited items, Byrd said travelers can ease security screening by tightly wrapping any power cords in carry-on bags.

While the airport has embarked on a $6 billion modernization and expansion plan, Council said the airport is minimizing construction activity over the holidays to reduce disruption.

The airport is also adding security staff and canine units over the holidays to boost security. "We will remain hyper-vigilant," Council said.

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About the Author

Kelly Yamanouchi
Kelly Yamanouchi
Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi covers airlines and the airport.